The self-emptying of Jesus Christ is one of the great wonders of His Incarnation—and it is also highly instructive for us, since we too must learn the way to decrease, so that He can increase. Here is the “Why, What and How” of it as well as I can make out. Just remember please that trying to peer into a Mystery is like walking into a fog. Sometimes all you get are vague impressions. Fortunately, devotion (unlike doctrine) doesn’t feed on analysis and definitions. Let this post be for your adoration and feast your eyes on His matchless humility.
Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. Philippians 2:5-7 ASV
The Christmas story has so many familiar images that we can practically picture Jesus’ birth in our minds. Indeed it has been played out before eyes in numerous movies and church pageants. We know it by heart. But what about the hidden story?—invisible to us yet stunningly apparent to that host of heaven gathered on those wintry fields beyond Bethlehem. There is something quite astonishing going on behind the scenes and it will help our hearts to esteem Him even more as we seek to unveil just a bit of this Mystery, the mystery of how it was that the Word became flesh through the “self-emptying” of Jesus Christ.
1) Why? Why a baby? We take it for granted that He came into the world as a baby, but that wasn’t His only option. From a Christian perspective there are numerous sightings of the Lord Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures most notably in His appearance as both “a man” and “Prince of the Lord’s hosts” to Joshua just before battle at Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15). Why didn’t Jesus simply step into time and space to begin His mission looking and acting like one of us?
Why did He choose to enter our world as a baby instead? Clearly, He had to become fully human. That could only happen by being born of a woman same as the rest of us. But why? I see two compelling reasons and they both argue for Him not only becoming fully human, but in some sense, only human:
a) He had to become one of us in order to die as our representative at the cross and
b) He had to become one of us to regain the dominion authority over the earth that we had ceded to Satan.
To do this He had to “empty” Himself of all that went with being God. Someone put it this way: though He was never less than fully God, He lived as never more than only man.
2) What? What was He emptied of? No doubt there is much here that needs reverent pondering, but the list is impressive even when filed by title: Jesus chose to empty Himself of His own divine glory, of His rights and privileges, of omnipotence, of omniscience, of omnipresence, and of the fame and adoration He received in heaven. He left behind heaven’s beauty, its glory and its matchless fellowship, including especially His “face to face” intimacy with His Father.
Think of what a little baby brings into the world by way of knowledge and power and only add to that an unbroken spiritual connection to the Father (He was born of the Holy Spirit) and only subtract from that picture a spiritual connection to the enemy (He was born without a fallen nature). This is admittedly a huge difference from our birth. We don’t received the same spiritual connection to the Father until we are born again and it is only then that we are severed from the fallen nature and the enemy’s mastery over us that it provides.
Even so, these spiritual realities are distinctive of the invisible realm of spirit and take place within our hidden depths. Hold the picture of what a baby’s body offers by the way of powerlessness and what a baby’s soul provides by way of knowledge and you will see well enough how thoroughly the Son of God was emptied!
3) How? How did He grow? How was He refilled? Luke tells us He grew in favor with God and man, but long before that He had a tremendous amount of catching up to do with the Person He once had been, the Person the baby would grow to become. God help us not to transgress in our thinking about so hallowed and mysterious a subject as what was transpiring within the infant Jesus. Yet, for Jesus to have honestly and fully become an infant there could be nothing in the baby’s consciousness that would not be in ours, save for the inchoate sense of connection to Father God and the absence of strident self will. But where, oh where, were the words?
The Word became flesh by setting words aside! Did not the Babe of Bethlehem have to learn Hebrew word by word? Indeed we know that it takes quite a while for babies to separate out images, sounds, feelings and then associate them with ideas, before speech itself can be learned. Did not Jesus have to travel this same path or was it all just pretense and pretending?
Did He who gave the Word to Israel, not have to learn Truth through the scriptures as a child—just as we do? Did He not have to search the scriptures to discover (rediscover) His divine assignment and destiny? Did He not need a faith community to aid His own spiritual formation? Was He not tempted same as we are? Did He not have to seek to stay united to His Father through intimacy and obedience and depend upon the Spirit for guidance and power—same as we? He “suffered” the burden of all of these disciplines (so necessary for us as well) and grew.
Perhaps the greatest temptation Jesus faced throughout His life was to draw on His divine side and in so doing forfeit the right to be our representative. Seen in this light every day from childbirth onwards was fraught with hidden perils. How perfect His obedience had to be! His self-emptying choice to become (and remain while on earth) fully human was a direct reversal of the enemy’s temptation to Eve to become like God.
We have all—beginning in infancy—aspired to be the god of our own little worlds, imposing our wills wherever we could get away with it. Yet, Jesus emptied Himself, choosing to become a servant to His Father’s will each and every moment of His life. Not only that but His assignment was to live as if He were only human, so that He could complete His high calling at the cross as our representative.
What an irony—Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, was the only child born of Adam and Eve who freely chose to be merely human. In this He shows us the way. We may not have received His start, but we who believe have all received the same re-start. Now seek to see how your own emptying and refilling can mirror His. Go back over the path of His own development and see how He is even now seeking to grow up from a mere babe inside of you into full stature and favor with God and humanity.